On Tuesday, a federal appeals court dismissed the three-year long lawsuit of a Florida-based atheist group against the City of Lakeland, which was being accused of violating the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause by conducting prayers at the beginning of its City Commission meetings.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined Tuesday that the city and its mayor, Gow Fields, had not violated the Constitution, as argued by the Atheists of Florida organization, due to a 2010 policy implemented by the city which allows speakers of various denominations to deliver the opening prayer at the meetings.
"The selection procedures of the invocational speakers invited to deliver an invocation at Lakeland City Commission's meetings pursuant to policies and practices initiated informally in March 2010, which were codified with the passage of Resolution 4848 in August 2010, do not support the AOF's contention that Lakeland attempted to exploit the prayer opportunity to proselytize or advance or disparage any one faith or belief," Judge Arthur Alarcon of the Eleventh Circuit Appeals Court wrote on behalf of a three-judge panel.
"Nor do those policies and practices have the effect of affiliating the Lakeland City Commission with any discrete faith or belief."
Lakeland Mayor Fields said in a statement after the hearing that he was pleased with the outcome, according to The Ledger.
"We were elated to hear the news earlier today on the court's ruling," Fields said Tuesday night.
"I believe very strongly that this was a very important message to make: That the Constitution applies to those that want to exercise their right to offer an invocation for heavenly guidance for their elected officials."
Atheists of Florida filed a lawsuit against both the city and its mayor in 2010, arguing that the prayers before the city meetings were unconstitutional in that they applied almost exclusively to Christianity.
In an attempt to end the dispute, city officials modified their rules later in 2010, opening the meetings' prayers to members of all denominations, and adding language to its city agenda clarifying that the city officials endorsed no religion.
The city also modified its meeting agenda so that prayer would not be listed as a part of official meeting business and that no attendee would be forced to participate.
Additionally, the city sent out invitations to different places of worship in an attempt to invite prayer speakers from a series of denominations to attend.
A U.S. district court dismissed the initial lawsuit in 2012 due to the city's changes, and therefore the Atheists of Florida attempted to appeal their case in federal court, which also sided with the city.